Reflections of the Great Lakes, part 13: Tobacco, Sacred Gift of the Thunderbirds
Updated: Oct 11
Odemiini-giizis (Strawberry Moon) / Baashkaabigonii-giizis (Blooming Moon), June 4, 2020
“When the waters are calm and the fog rises, I will now and then appear”
(Song of the Midewiwin)
Boozhoo, aaniin, biindigen!
Welcome to part 13 of the blog series titled "Reflections of the Great Lakes."
The stories pay homage to the spirit and fascinating beauty and majesty of GICHIGAMIIN, the Great Lakes of Turtle Island (North America), and thematically connect the jewelry and artwork displayed with the Seven Grandfather teachings of the Ojibwe Anishinaabeg People who for many generations have lived close to the Lakes' shores to survive.
Today's story is woven around a gold and silver ring set designed and handcrafted by myself and paintings by three first-generation Anishinaabe Woodland painters, the late Carl Ray, the late Jackson Beardy, and the late Norval Morrisseau --- and on top of that accompanied by acrylic on canvases by the late second-generation Anishinaabe painters Martin and Stanley Panamick and third-generation Anishinaabe painters Derek Harper and Minowewegebon (Kevin Belmore) as well as two digital black-and-white drawings by myself.
The Anishinaabeg and Ininewak Peoples, as well as countless other First Peoples that live on the great Turtle Island nowadays called America and Canada, have always been conscious of the presence of Mystery, or, as it is called in our language, manidoo. Even today our Peoples offer the sacred asemaa (tobacco) to this manidoo in order to acknowledge and honor it. This is particularly done in places where its presence is felt the most intensely, such as a clearing in a dense forest, a remote cave near the edge of a lake, a whirpool, on a small island, or the top of a steep hill or mountain. The act of zagaswaawin (smoking tobacco) – or biindaakwewin like the Ojibweg in the Southeast call it – and biindaakoojigewin (offering tobacco), without which a ceremony would be impossible, is our Native way of reciprocal recognition, of witnessing and walking with all of our relatives (the spirits and all living beings, or “Relations,” within Creation) in the act of deep reflective knowing and understanding.
No one knows knows exactly when the practice of biindaakoojigewin began, but, judging from our stories and traditions, it has been customary for many, many generations. Asemaa is offered in a myriad of occasions: for example when one approaches an Elder for a teaching or for advice, or when migizi or giniw (the bald head eagle and the golden eagle) fly overhead, or when one crosses a body of water, or during a ceremony, or when a storm approaches, or when medicine and food (in the form of a plant) or a stone or metal is taken from the earth, or when the life of an animal is taken.
Many stories exist about the origin of asemaa and about who started the practice of asemaakewin/biindaakoojigewin. Today I will offer you a story, or rather an amalgamation of several stories - orally imparted to me by Elders as well as in print (books written by knowledgeable Elders) - that are made up of various different story threads, woven together with my own imagination and dreams. The gold and silver wedding rings shown below, their abstract outline designs a symbolic reference to the Thunderbirds - and how they carried the gift of tobacco to the earth -, as well as beautiful works painted by the late Jackson Beardy and several other Anishinaabe artist, serve as illustrations to the story.
It is my own version of the story about the origin of asemaa, and how the Anishinaabeg Peoples learned to offer it as an act of prayerful and powerful reciprocity, that I have become to love so much. The gold and silver ring set, its stylized Thunderbird design referring to several stories I have heard about the origin of tobacco and the ritual of tobacco offering, is a teaching in itself, motivated by a deeply felt concern that we, as Anishinaabeg, aren’t fully attending to the instructions anymore as they were once given to our ancestors by GICHI-MANIDOO, the Great Mystery.
I think this teaching is still deeply relevant. Making the rings was like a prayer, and their design is a statement. I wanted to make clear as to why this and related stories are still so needed in our time, and how they still convey important knowledge to us and offer healing Medicine to our Mother Earth - and in so doing heal each and every one of us.
If I remember correctly, the first story I heard about the origin of asemaa-offering relates about Wenabozho, old-time friend of the Anishinaabeg Peoples. As far as I know tobacco has always been associated with this beloved aadizookaan (maker of supernatural stories), who is said to have lived on the Morning Star in the East before he was lowered to the earth to become the friend and helper of the Anishinaabeg. According to several sources it was Wenabozho who taught the Anishinaabeg to offer asemaa, and I do not think it is a coincidence that Anishinaabeg believe asemaa represents the East.
>Click here to view details of the ring set
~~ ABOUT THE THUNDERBIRD RING SET ~~
These unique wedding bands, made by hand in the minimalistic, dramatic graphic overlay style that is my trademark, are constructed of yellow gold; the left ring has an interior of sterling silver while the ring to the right has an inside of red gold. Both wedding rings feature abstract, strongly stylized figures of two Animikii-binesiwag, or Thunderbirds, merging into one; the flowing outlines represent the thunderbirds' wings and heads.
The ring to the left shows a bottom sheet of silver (the inside of the ring) that is blackened through oxidation which makes the design stand out in relief; the ring to the right has an interior of red gold that shows through the yellow gold surface, resulting in a softer contrast and adding subtle sophistication to the overall design. Inside the wing tips of both wedding rings is an inlaid circle of yellow gold within a bigger circle. The title of the wedding ring set, Mashkiki Genawenimaadjig, meaning Keepers of Medicine, relates to these design elements, which symbolize seeds carrying the sacred tobacco that the Thunderbirds brought a long time ago to Earth and the Anishinaabe Peoples.
Binesiwag, the Thunderbirds, are said to be related to the wendaanimag noodinoon, the Winds that blow from the four corners of the Earth. Animikiig, the Thunderers, are considered the most pervasive and powerful beings of all the Aadizookaanag - Spirit Grandfathers - that guard the four cardinal points of the Universe. They leave their homes on high cliffs and mountain peaks in the west in the beginning of spring and come to Earth in different forms and guises and sizes -- as winged beings, or sometimes even in human form -- to vist the Anishinaabeg and to drive off potentially malevolent underground spirits from the Earth and the waters of lakes and rivers. They are in charge of the warm weather and procure and maintain the warm seasons on Earth, which is why they migrate with the birds that appear in spring and disappear in the fall.
Their thunder claps herald the presence of powerful manidoog or Spirit Beings, their lightning arrows carry strong Medicine. It is said that the eyes of the Thunderbird Grandfathers, who have a close and beneficial relationship with humans and are known to impart knowledge and foretell the future, are able to see and explore the hearts of human beings and discern their skills, talents, and desires. This brings up memories of a long time ago when the Anishinaabeg still wandered aimlessly on the face of Aki (Earth), disheartened and disorganized and standing on the brink of extinction; it was then that Grandfather Binesi was sent to Earth to aid the People in finding their place in the world and in making them aware of their collective and individual skills and talents needed for developing self-worth and for survival in a harsh and hostile environment. Thunderbird also taught the Anishinaabeg to organize themselves in doodemag (clans), thus shaping the bedrock of a strong society.
Since Thunderbirds travel singly or in pairs, Anishinaabe artists often depict their images singly, as two, and sometimes - since they represent the wendaanimag noodinoon or Four Winds created by the Great Mystery - as four. The flowing outlines in the above wedding rings feature the mirror images of two stylized Thunderbirds, their heads placed in the center; both sides of the rings display a Thunderbird wing that curls around a circle within a larger circle. These round design elements represent GICHI-MANIDOO, the Great Mystery. The smaller circle within the larger (demi) circle, in the context of the story told today, is a seed that symbolize asemaa, the sacred plant that the Thunderbirds brought to earth and that was introduced to the Anishinaabeg by Wenabozho, the Great Hare (more about him later on). These Mystery seeds called asemaa are magic symbols that bring nature life and fertility and gift the humans with medicine, knowledge, and wisdom. But above all, the seeds, seen in the context of these wedding rings, denote Protection and Good Fortune as they bless the hearts of two life partners who share the path of life…
~~ WENABOZHO AND THE SPIRIT OF THUNDERBIRD MOUNTAIN ~~
Now, I will tell you a sacred story.
Many strings of life ago, Migizi, the white-headed eagle who lives in the East, carried the pleading prayers of an Elder and his People. At a time when things were not well with Creation, Migizi drew near to an old man sitting by the shore of a great lake. As Migizi swooped down low he heard the earnest words of the Elder asking GICHI-MANIDOO to help the Anishinaabeg People as they had lost their way and were starving and sick. Eagle decided to carry these prayers to GICHI-MANIDOO.
Just before dawn that day Migizi flew out of the crack between darkness and light - that edge between night and day. He flew straight into the sky. He flew so high he flew completely out of sight. He flew straight toward the burning face of Giizis (Father Sun) and to GICHI-MANIDOO just as Father Sun was about to come over the rim of the Earth. Eagle screamed four times to get GICHI-MANIDOO’s attention. GICHI-MANIDOO saw Migizi and held back Father Sun. At the time of this biidaaban, false dawn, Migizi talked to GICHI-MANIDOO and asked that the prayers be heard.
GICHI-MANIDOO considered all this and decided to send Migizi back to the Anishinaabeg to remind them of the teachings of asemaakewin (the offering of tobacco), opwaaganebiwin (the ceremony of the Pipe), and Midewiwin, the medicine way to healing. As Migizi was about to leave GICHI-MANIDOO spoke: “Because of your courage and service to the Anishinaabeg, I am going to transform you into a Thunderbird, Binesi Animikii. Your voice will be like thunder and your keen eye will now flash like lightning across the sky. From now on, you will be the one who hears the prayers of those who pray for the Anishinaabeg and you will carry my gift to them in dream and the power of Vision.” And so, Migizi, now Thunderbird, or Animikii Binesi, flew back to the People and offered the gifts and blessings of GICHI-MANIDOO. Since that time, when the Thunderbird, Animikii Binesi, shakes the world with thunder causing lightning to flash across the sky, when the thunder roars and lightning strikes the earth, the wise ones know Animikii Binesi is near and then they make offering and pray for a dream, a vision to live by. They gather the sacred medicines to make their binjigosanan (medicine bundles) for the healing of the Anishinaabeg, themselves, and Mother Earth.
Because of this, we owe our lives and lives of our children and those that come after them to Eagle. This is why Migizi, Eagle, is so respected by Indigenous people everywhere. This is why the Anishinaabeg People, when they’re Sundancing, use a whistle made from the wing bone of the eagle. They sound the whistle four times at the start of other ceremonies as well. They do this to remember Our Relative, Migizi, Eagle, his teaching and the role he plays in the preservation of the Earth and the People, The Anishinaabeg…¹
So that is how Migizi, the Eagle, brought healing back to the earth and her children, and was then transformed into a Thunderbird. But as so often happens in human history this knowledge, about tobacco offering and offering the sacred pipe, and the Medicine way to healing, was lost in time.
Many years after Migizi had brought the People knowledge and Medicine, the Anishinaabeg had once again lost their way and were starving and sick. By that time there lived a manidoo-oshkiniigiwin (spirit-boy) in the heart of Anishinaabewaki, the land of the Ojibweg Peoples. He shared a wiigiwaam (lodge) with Nookomis, his maternal grandmother, on the shore of a beautiful bay. A nearby mountain sloped in this bay, its summit continuously hidden by a thick blanket of clouds, even on sunny days. Often thunders could be heard from the flat mountain top echoing across the lake, while lightning flashed in the skies.
This spirit boy, who possessed great supernatural powers, was called Nanabozho (Trembling Tail) by his grandmother. It was Nanabozho, or Wenabozho as we will call him (for this is how he is called when talked about from the storyteller’s perspective), who would in his adult years teach the Ojibwe Anishinaabeg how to live in the natural world. Enh geget, everything that is a benefit to the Anishinaabeg is traced to Wenabozho, the great manidoo waabooz (Spirit Hare) who teaches us how to survive in our natural environment - and yet, by his foolish actions, gives us an endless supply of humor!
One day Wenabozho, who was still an oshkiniigiwin (young adolescent), asked Nookomis what was the biggest fish in the bay. She replied that there was an enormous fish that lived by a rock ledge but it was very powerful and would harm Wenabozho. No one could kill the fish because no one could get down there where it lived.
Wenabozho thought about how to hunt this fish, so he got some wood to make a bow and arrows. Then he asked his grandmother if there were any birds whose feathers could be put on the arrows to make them effective. She told Wenabozho the only feathers strong enough come from two huge birds that live in the sky, at the opening of the clouds. She told Wenabozho that one would have to go there to get these feathers.
Wenabozho, figuring that, judging from the thundering and lightning that came from above, these two birds could be found on the crest of the mountain he an his grandmother lived next to, decided to climb it. In preparation for the ambitious venture he went into fast for eight days. On the ninth day Wenabozho began his ascent up the steep sides of the mountain. During the entire climb the rocks shook with thunder while lightning flashed and flickered throughout the entire Universe! Then, tayaa! as he was surrounded by a thick fog, or mist that blocked his view of the bay beneath him, Wenabozho heard high-pitched voices chanting above the mountain’s rumblings. The eerie-sounding song gave Wenabozho, who was certainly no coward, the chills, and he gasped as he listened to its words:
Wegonen manepwaand? Wegonen waa bagidinagesig? Who dares without tobacco? Who dares without offering?
Asemaa bizaande-ekaage. Asemaa waaseyaakaage. Tobacco will allay your anger. Tobacco will clear the mist.
Trembling with excitement and more determined than ever, Wenabozho continued his climb. Then, suddenly, inaa! In the midst of a mighty roar and blinding light, Wenabozho saw the two gigantic Thunderbirds towering over their stone nest. Inside the nest there were their babies! Wenabozho, who had no fear of Thunderbirds and little regard for traditions that forbade anyone to climb the mountain and enter the domain of the sky spirits, quickly turned into misaabooz (a jack rabbit) in order to deceive the Thunderbirds. One of the Thunderbirds took Wenabozho in his claws and brought him to the nest for their babies to play with.
Wenabozho stayed in the nest for a long time; the babies were cruel to him and tossed him around. Eventually the Thunderbird couple went away to hunt for snakes as food for their babies. Quickly Wenabozho turned back to oshkinawe (a boy); he clubbed the baby Thunderbirds and pulled out their feathers. Before their parents could return, Wenabozho jumped from the high nest with the bundle of feathers. He was badly bruised, yet he was not killed because he was manidoo (a spirit).
When they returned to their nest, the two angered Thunderbirds went after Wenabozho!! Thunder rolled from their beaks and lightning flashed from their eyes. On earth, Wenabozho ran for his life clutching his bundle of feathers, but soon grew so tired he began to fear he would be caught. As the two huge Thunderbirds reached for him with their claws, Wenabozho saw an old fallen birch that was hollow inside. Wenabozho crept into the hollow in the nick of time. The Thunderbirds ended their attack because they regarded birch trees as their own children! Wenabozho was safe. After the Thunderbirds went away, Wenabozho came out, fixed his arrows, and went home. With these arrows he was able to kill the great fish that lived under the rock ledge.
And never again were thunders heard or lightning seen on the rocky crests of the mountain; no longer was its summit covered by a thick blanket of mist. The Anishinaabeg who lived in a nearby village said that the Thunderbird couple had abandoned their nesting place and would no longer return. Wenabozho had desecrated their abode and they had taken revenge by leaving. The Anishinaabeg, who were fond of the Thunderbirds – who, after all, brought fertility to the land in the form of cleansing rainshowers - but had nonetheless forgotten how to offer tobacco to them - were very angry with Wenabozho. They blamed him for their misfortune!
Now, it happened to be that the mountain, which the Anishinaabeg called animikii-wajiw, the Thunder Mountain, formed a neyaashi (point) where it entered the water of the bay – called Binesi-wiikwedong, or Thunderbird Bay - and this point became covered by an ever present mist. The villagers whispered that it was Wenabozho’s foolish action of disturbing the Thunderbirds’ nest that had caused this. They believed it was the wrath of the Thunderbird couple that had once lived on top of the mountain. Whenever anyone steered his jiimaan near it, winds would suddenly rise from the west and whip the waters into a mass of curling waves, whirlpools, and currents. Many fishermen of the nearby village disappeared near the point and were believed to have drowned. The fishermen could not launch their jiimaanan and spear fish because of the ever-present mist and a thick layer of dust covering its waters. The Anishinaabeg, who believed the Thunderbirds had brought them luck and good medicine while they still lived on the mountain, blamed Wenabozho for their misfortune.
Wenabozho, now feeling guilty, decided to help the poor Anishinaabeg. One summer day he crossed the bay as he was looking for his brother Maajiigawiz, whom he knew lived in a land not far from where the sun sets. As he paddled his jiimaan (canoe) near the point of land that was covered by the ever-present mist, he found the being who created the violent squalls that prevented the starving Anishinaabeg from fishing. This being was sent by his brother Maajiigawiz.
Wenabozho figured that this gaa-noodinikaan (wind spirit) that was sent by his brother created the fog by blowing his warm breath on the point of land that jutted into the bay. He also noticed that the spirit caused the violent squalls on the water by waving his arms wildly about. Wenabozho, who as we know was truly no coward, steered his canoe in such a way that it pointed to the west. He drew as near as he could toward the gaa-noodinikaan and commanded the wind being in so sharp a tone to cease that it became startled and punctured the sky with its arms, creating a storm that was so big and ferocious that it even woke up the horned snakes and cats that lived on the bottom of the great sea lying behind the bay! Wenabozho, whose canoe nearly capsized in the flood that ensued, managed to draw his waagaakwad (tomahawk) from his belt. With it, he tried to chop off the arms of the wind spirit, but his own arms weren’t long enough. The wind blew him further and further toward the point that was now - although it was still broad daylight - covered by pitch-black darkness! Heavy waves rolled and surged against the rocks and cliffs with a noise like thunder! In his struggle to keep his canoe from capsizing, meanwhile swinging his tomahawk wildly about him in a desperate attempt to cut off the wind spirit’s arms that had caused the storm, Wenabozho suddenly heard sad voices chanting in unison above the terrible roar of the storm. It were the same high-pitched, eerie-sounding voices he had heard on the crest of the mountain near the Thunderbirds’ nest!
Oo! Apegish abiidaabang. Oo! Apegish abiidaabang. Oh! May daylight soon reappear. Oh! May daylight soon reappear.
Oo! Apegish ginopowaahingoban. Oo! Apegish zagaswaahingoban. Oh! How I wish for the taste of tobacco. Oh! How I wish for the smell of tobacco.
Giinawind asinii-opwaaganinaanind dizhiigwag. Giinawind bawaaganinaanind dizhiigwag. Our stone pipes are cold and empty. Our ceremonial pipes are cold and empty.
Then, suddenly the darkness lifted and the fog that had covered the point of land reappeared. Through it, Wenabozho, panting and squinting his eyes, waagaakwad clenched in his right hand, observed a small asinii-jiimaan (canoe of stone) bearing several little people no taller than Wenabozho-bikwakoon (meadow lilies) rocking on the waves. They were memegwesiwag, mischievous bank-dwelling water spirits that lived on steep slopes in rocky areas around the bay, and famous for their medicine. Although they were in possession of stone paddles, their canoe moved alone, as if powered by some external force! Each passenger carried a stone pipe, and it was their voices he heard singing.
Gigaa baagwashkaagamiichigemin Baanimaa makwenimikohing. We will stir the waters Until one remembers.
Asemaa binidee-eshkaage. Asemaa biininenamishkaage. Asemaa bizaande-eshkaage. Tobacco cleanses our hearts. Tobacco cleanses our minds. Tobacco brings peace.
Wenabozho remembered how he had heard the chanting about tobacco on top of Thunderbird Mountain and he quickly put his waagaakwad back into his belt. Then he reached for the gashkibidaagan (tobacco pouch) that he kept on the bottom of his canoe that was still rocking frantically on the waves of the bay. He threw a few handfuls of the asemaa in the waves. As the tobacco floated away, Wenabozho chanted a song that his grandmother had once taught him:
Asemaa niwiikaanen. Asemaa giwiikaanenaan. Asemaa giwiikaanisimikonaan. Tobacco is my friend. Tobacco is our friend. Tobacco makes us friends.
Hereupon the little people in the stone canoe gathered Wenabozho’s asemaa from the waters and filled their asinii-opwaaganag (stone pipes). As if by magic, their jiimaan glided away toward the steep cliffs that bordered the bay. The canoe disappeared into an opening, which closed behind them, without a sound and and faster than Wenabozho could blink. Immediately, the fog lifted, and the storm on the bay subsided!
The sky became cloudless so that the horizon was visible far behind the bay and the great lake. The sun started to shine again. The bay became calm and undisturbed by any ripples. Next, a gentle wind from the south swept softly over the water and through the trees that lined the land - whispering softly to each other, their leaves swaying dreamily in an inaudible dance -, bringing comfort to the earth and her children. The dirt that had spread over the bay’s surface so that the Anishinaabeg could no longer kill fish, became washed away, and it was piled high up on the shores so that the water became clean and sweet again. From the rocky shore a happy murmur of voices arose, voices of the grateful fishermen who, thanks to the Great Hare Wenabozho, could at last go out to fish and feed their starving families.
Then, as Wenabozho was still watching the fishermen on the shores singing songs of praise, he noticed that the top of Thunderbird Mountain behind the point of land was still covered by a thick blanket of mist. Next, tayaa! the face of another manidoo emerged from the fog. The manidoo started to speak, its words only audible to Wenabozho. “When the waters of the lake are calm and the fog rises, I will now and then appear.” Next, an invisible hand reached down through a hole in the cloudless sky, right above where Wenabozho sat in his canoe and handed him a pipe. It was made of red clay and wrapped with sage. Four eagle feathers hung from its stem. The manidoo said:
“Take this gift, this bawaagan, my son, and return home. Use it with wisdom and deliberation, and remind the Anishinaabeg of the teachings of Migizi. From now on you will serve and help the Anishinaabeg instead of chasing your impulses. Don’t be like the falling stars. Instead, be a symbol of trustworthiness and determination like your relative the North Star who shines steadfast, unmoving, in the night sky, ahaaw!! Be wise, modest and restrained. And always respect the Thunderbirds, they are your relatives!
Never forget that they, like you, bring good things to the the earth and to humankind. Like you came from the East to bring Teachings to the earth for the good of the Anishinaabeg and, with your wise and foolish actions, serve as a mirror to them, the Thunderbirds came from the west to bring the cleansing rain to the trees and plants and lakes and rivers so that life on earth continues. You, Wenabozh, were gifted with formidable powers that equal those of the Animkii Biinesiwag!
From now on you must use your powers with wisdom, restraint, and composure! Remember my son, he who has power will bring good things, but a man who has too much power will always produce trouble for himself and the People who depend on him.”
Wenabozho took this as a great sign but also as a wise lesson learnt. Intent, now more than ever, on helping the Anishinaabeg whom he had let down by his foolish action on the mountain that had chased the Thunderbirds away, he steered his jiimaan back home, to the opposite shore where his grandmother waited for him. But not before he addressed the Anishinaabeg, who were now smiling, understanding great magic had happened that would better their lives. Wenabozho told them that it was not he but the memegwesiwag who had driven away the mist and the squalls caused by the wind spirit, and that they therefore must never forget to offer asemaa to the little people in the remote places where they abided.
Since that day, when there were troubling times, Wenabozho appeared and reminded the grateful Anishinaabeg of Migizi’s teachings, how to offer asemaa to the earth as an act of prayerful reciprocity, and how to gift the tobacco to fire, offering the rising smoke as a prayer to GICHI-MANIDOO, the Great Mystery of Life. He taught the Anishinaabeg that the proper way to offer asemaa to someone is to take a pinch out of the gashkibidaagan (tobacco pouch) and hand that pinch to the person, then roll the gashkibidaagan back up and give the whole bundle to the person. This way the person you offer the asemaa to will know you’re being sincere, he said.
He also gifted the Anishinaabeg with the sacred pipe wrapped with sage that he had received after his search for his brother Maajiigawiz, whom I suspect to have sent the wind spirit that caused the treacherous gales on Thunder Bay. And even today our Peoples offer the sacred tobacco pipe to those in the circle to seal peace and good will, its rising smoke a living prayer to GICHI-MANIDOO, the great spirit that permeates everything and makes all life possible. And we will never forget the teachings of tobacco offering that GICHI-MANIDOO conveyed to our ancestors through Migizi and Animikii Binesiwag, the mighty Eagle and Thunderbirds, and through Wenabozho, our beloved benefactor and friend.
Mii sa ekoozid. Miigwech gibizindaw noongom mii dash gidibaajimotoon wa’aw aanike-gikinoo'amaadiwin. And that is the end of the story. Thank you for listening to me today, for allowing me to relate to you this sacred teaching. Giga-waabamin wayiiba, I hope to see you again soon.